Commentary on Scientific Skeptical podcasts and random musings on various topics Skeptical and otherwise.
Friday, March 5, 2010
Australia's Token Skeptic causes a Hershey rant
I was not planning on a long post on this week's Token Skeptic but things change.
This week's episode featured an interview by Kylie Sturgess of Prof. Bruce M. Hood, author of Supersense: Why we believe the unbelievable. The topics discussed were homeopathy and the dowsing bomb detection device (GT200) that has recently made the news a number of times over the past few weeks. Hood has been prominent on both these items. Hood was involved in the BBC story that finally gained widespread attention to that fact that the device was based on the disproved mechanism of dowsing. Hood was invited to test the device by the manufacturer, and in the meantime he had the cooperation of the BBC to try and film the test. The test never occurred but this started the ball rolling where various military leaders in a number of countries are attempting to deal with the aftermath.
Hood has also made waves in the blog/skeptical realm by suggesting that homeopathy might still have a useful application by medical providers as a safe placebo. I wish to be clear that Hood is clear that he does not consider homeopathy to be efficacious at all other than by placebo.
It struck me on my drive into work today while listening to this podcast that Hood arguably has a double standard with placebos. Like many in the skeptical community, I am uneasy with Hood's position for using homeopathy as the placebo treatment of choice for health care providers. I understand Hood's rationale that unlike other placebo medications used by doctors (such as antibiotics to treat diseases that are not amenable to such treatments), homeopathy as a placebo does not have menacing side effects since it is active ingredient-free. One reason I am uneasy about homeopathy as the official placebo "drug of choice" by medical doctors is that I am not convinced medical doctors will realize that it is only a placebo. Many might think it has actual physiological properties, and actually use it as a first line treatment and not as a placebo.
Most doctors are not scientists, and many times, they are not skeptics. A lot of excellent and mediocre physicians alike will see patients happily being treated with their placebo and come to believe, based on such anecdotal evidence, that the homeopathic "treatment" is doing something beyond mentally putting the patient at ease. A very good doctor I know just returned from Haiti and told of a physiatrist treating knee pain on a patient with a mangled knee with pins in the ears, and to him it worked wonderfully. My first thought was placebo effect, and then I thought of Dr. Crislip's recent treatment of this topic on Quackcast.
My other concern is that while Hood concedes a possible place for a medicinal placebo, he sees no place for a military placebo. What military placebo? The GT200 used by U.S., U.K., Iraqi and other military and police forces does not actually do anything, and yet it can provide the user of the device a sense of (false) security, and a sense of doing something. This sense of empowerment must do some good for morale. It is not unheard of for the military to do things to boost troop morale. For you Civil War geeks, there was a famous disagreement between Union Infantry and Artillery officers whether to counter battery fire at the Confederate Army's pre-Pickett's Charge rather massive artillery barrage. The infantry wanted the counter fire to raise morale, while the artillery thought it a waste of ammunition. It's a way to give comfort to soldiers getting pounded by fast moving metal and the random impact of death possible at any moment. The dowsing bomb box could be argued to serve the same general purpose. Sure it won't work, but if it helps gird the soldier at risk to the task at hand it is not worthless, right? The GT200 (putting the crazy $20,000plus cost aside) has some value if it can help a soldier get through the daily grind of looking for bombs and at any moment randomly get blown to bits, or terribly maimed. Basically, this is the equivalent of what Hood is espousing when he states that homeopathy isn't so bad as a placebo.
I know I am comparing apples to very real grenades. I do not wish to diminish at all the terrifying grind of various soldiers, police, and peace keepers around the globe. I am wholly against the use of the GT200 or anything like it in the military kit of a soldier. Yet, I am also against the use of a fake treatment with a widely held misguided following to comfort patients too. Homeopathy is bound to be used to the detriment of the user by a prescriber. This is not even getting into the whole area that if doctors use it knowing it has no real efficacy, the proponents of homeopathy on its own merits will use the medical use for any reason as evidence of its efficacy. Rather than pick one placebo over the other when both could have terribly dire consequences, one in large explosive form and the other in a more boring missed opportunity to properly treat form, they both ought to be rejected.
Once again I found the topic discussed on Sturgess's show highly engaging and thought provoking. At 17 mere minutes, I think most skeptic minded folks can find the time to for a listen.
(I have five minutes left in this week's Skeptic Zone. It is also quite good, and likely to generate a rant free commentary. Australia is home to some might fine skepticism.)